The Tomato Man

My Dad passed away on March 24, 2021, 8:49 p.m. I was in the quiet hospital room with my eldest brother, Perry, when he took his last breath in this broken world.

Dad lived over 88 years, almost all in the Branson area. He grew up on a farm not far from where he raised five kids, the past 55 years on Bear Creek Road, the home I grew up in, and the home where I lived next door to him for the past 18 years.

Dad wore a lot of hats over the years. He served in the Army. He studied Agriculture Business at the University of Missouri. He labored many years in construction, helping build places like the new Branson City Hall, the Longcreek Bridge, and many other projects as far away as Camdenton, Missouri, 100 miles from our home. He raised cattle, strawberries and various other vegetables.

But his speciality was tomatoes.

Dad raised lots of tomatoes over the years. I remember one summer where he staked up close to 500 plants. The tomatoes resided on a steep hillside below Mom and Dad's small home. He hammered in old posts fashioned from small trees found in the woodline near their 40 acres of land. He lined wire to the posts and then tied the young tomatoes to the wire. Many summer evenings after working a full day of construction, one would see Dad tending to his tomatoes, shirt drenched from sweat, hoeing, tying and watering his latest crop.

Dad loved selling his produce at the local farmer's market near the Taneycomo Lakefront. Mom would keep the books while Dad enjoyed bantering with fellow sellers about whose tomatoes looked better. He enjoyed visiting with regular customers like Karen Hall, Sue Eudy and cousin Lavonne Meadows. He liked to put in an extra tomato or too after the sale, or maybe throw in a bag of green beans. His prices were always too low.

I remember the day after Mom passed in May of 2013, we found Dad out in the garden, now the smaller, more level garden patch. The lower, bigger patch proved too steep for Dad's aged legs and back to handle. He was planting young, new tomatoes. It seemed his simple way of dealing with his unimaginable grief of losing his wife of nearly 60 years. The new life of his tomato plants juxtaposed the lost life of his partner and bride. I watched him hoe and plant from the kitchen window, knowing he would not want company or help.

Over the next eight years, living next door to my father on the land I grew up on, and getting much help from my wife and siblings, we helped care for Dad the best we could. After trying for a couple of nights, Dad refused to sleep in the bed he shared with Mom, and began sleeping on his beloved couch. He continued raising tomatoes, but the numbers dwindled over the ensuing years as his strength ebbed.

We could tell he missed Mom terribly, though he didn't mention it much. Dad never was one to share his heart or emotions. I learned his way of saying I'm sorry or I love you was bringing over a few tomatoes or fresh green beans. I checked on him every morning, seven days a week, for eight years after Mom passed. Some mornings I didn't want to check on him. I may have had an argument with him the day before about something silly, or grew tired of the awkward silence when he was not in a talking mood. But I kept going, because, after all, he was my Dad.

You see, while Dad didn't give words of praise, he was always there. He attended all our home ballgames, and often when his long hours of work and farming would allow, would travel to away games as well. He threw the baseball with us, played basketball with us near the garden with his patented one-hand set shot, and would show up to pick us up from practices when we weren't of driving age yet.

We never went on family vacations growing up, but we took trips to Bear Creek. Brother Perry recalled riding in the back of our old green truck going to the creek and Dad spitting tobacco out the driver window and hitting him in the face. He saw Dad laughing from the rear view mirror!

We went to the grocery store together. Dad took us on fishing trips. We watched Carol Burnett and All in the Family together, and on hot summer evenings listened to Jack Buck call Cardinal baseball games. I remember rare occasions getting to stay up to watch Johnny Carson with Dad, hearing him laugh out loud. Dad also enjoyed Fred Sanford and George Jefferson.

Some evenings when he got home after a long day of construction and gardening, he would have one of us boys help take off his work boots as he laid on his couch. I remember the smell of sweat mixed with the clay dirt on his boots falling in my lap as I unlaced his boots. Dad was often gruff, but also had a tender side.  I remember when little laying in front of him on the couch while watching Night Gallery, a scary show hosted by Rod Sterling. I pretended to watch, but my eyes stayed closed for all the scary parts.

My wife and I began helping more and more with Dad selling his tomatoes. The farmer's market days ended, but we sold to our more regular customers from our home. I took care of the picking and selling, while Dad would help with the tying and coaching Jodi and I on how to care for the plants, deal with the bugs and other critters who also liked tomatoes, and how often to water the plants. We had to run a long hose from our house to the plants, because Dad feared he would run out of water from his old well. He never did.

Before Dad died, I got to tell him I loved him finally. I never heard the verbal words from him, but I knew. We all knew. Sadly, he was on deep sedation when I told him, but yesterday when I went for my morning walk I looked up and told him again, and I knew he heard. One day, I know I'll hear the same words from him.

Many will miss the tomato man. I know I will. I must admit, I am relieved of the burden of caring for him these past couple of years as his health deteriorated and dementia slowly ate away at his memory. I'm grateful now knowing he, like Mom, had put his faith in Christ. More than once one of my brothers, my son and my uncle who stayed with Dad heard him praying or singing old gospel songs deep into the night shortly before his final journey began in the nursing home and hospital. 

He's home now with Mom and Jesus. I can't help thinking God has given him a plot of rich, deep soil with no rocks to plant tomatoes.